Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Out of Character,” the Asian Art Museum’s thoughtful exploration of Chinese calligraphy as art and writing closes on January 13, 2012; you can see it for free this Sunday


Jerry Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo, at the opening of an exhibition of his Chinese calligraphy collection at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999. Photo: courtesy Asian Art Museum

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, an exhibition of collector and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang’s calligraphy collection and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is a show that goes right to heart of Chinese culture and artistic practice.  The exhibition of roughly 40 significant works from Yang’s collection of roughly 250 pieces of calligraphy represents the first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy in the U.S. since 1999.  Curated by Dr. Michael Knight, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, and Dr. Joseph Chang, senior research fellow at the museum’s research Institute for Asian Art, the exhibition fills three full galleries and moves through six centuries including 15 featured works which are shown in their entirety.  As the title suggests, the emphasis is on decoding the mysteries and conventions behind calligraphy and its purpose and mastery.  The ancient practice has always been intriguing to Western audiences but has remained mysterious.  Importantly, this exhibition provides exciting and compelling evidence of calligraphy’s rich contribution to Chinese culture, something that has not been explored comprehensively and accessibly for Western audiences.  These works are on display for just two more weekends in San Francisco before the exhibition moves on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will be on display in 2014.

The four major formats of Chinese calligraphy— albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls and fans—are covered amply.  Many works are on exhibition for the first time and visitors have the rare chance to see such masterpieces as the earliest dated calligraphy outside China by Dong Qichang (1555-1636).   Also on display is “Lotus Sutra,” a late 13th-to-early-14th century handscroll by the esteemed calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).   Mengfu’s calligraphy was so influential that his standard script was chosen as the model for books printed by the early Ming court. This scroll raises a number of interesting questions.  Executed in small standard script (xiaokaishu), with a total of more than 10,000 characters, the handscroll is 10 7/8 inches high and a whopping 180 ½ inches long.  A testament to the absolute control, concentration, and endurance of the calligrapher, it is displayed and lit beautifully in a long rectangular glass cabinet in the exhibition’s fist gallery.

Mengfu’s work becomes all the more impressive when we consider that calligraphers as a general rule did not re-do or erase their work.  Each character, even hundreds in succession resulted from an energetic burst, something almost unimaginable in our era, where most of us have become so keyboard dependent that the act of handwriting has become laborious, resulting in almost illegible scrawls.  Megfu’s scroll is one of what were originally seven scrolls presenting the text of the Lotus Sutra.  Why did the calligrapher choose to reproduce one of the most influential texts in Chinese Buddhism?  Was it an exercise in devotion?  contemplation?  Who was it intended for?  Such are the mysteries surrounding this ancient art.

The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing), in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322. Handscroll, number 3 of a set of 7, ink on paper. Loan Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. Photography by Kaz Tsuruta.

The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Miaofa lianhua jing), in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322. Handscroll, number 3 of a set of 7, ink on paper. Loan Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. Photography by Kaz Tsuruta.

While calligraphy is aptly described as poetry in motion, it is much more than attractive writing. Throughout Chinese history it has been a judge of character and intelligence.  A good calligrapher was associated with scholarship (so highly esteemed in Chinese culture), sensibility, discipline and good taste. The study of important works of the past is a fundamental element of Chinese calligraphy.  Rote immersion and repetition are key in the early learning phases while mastery, never fully attained, is a lifelong practice.  Curator Dr. Michael Knight related the story of the famous calligrapher Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) who apparently sat for an important annual examination and was ranked third by his master due his characters.  This prompted him to copy out the Thousand Character Classic ten times every day for a total of 10,000 characters daily.  The effort was not in vain as Wen emerged among the very best calligraphers of the Ming dynasty.

One of the dramatic aspects of this exhibition is the extent to which the curators went to give it a modern sensibility.  In the second gallery, devoted to 15 featured works that exemplify importance and visual impact, an entire curved wall has been used to display all 85 pages of a single album.  Each page is displayed separately and eloquently, forming a dynamic wall of letters with a crisp and contemporary graphic appeal.  It’s almost impossible to stand before this and not be dazzled by the power of the ink and these dancing letters.

Many of the calligraphers represented have not only produced aesthetically beautiful and impressive scripts, the content itself is often eloquent poetry, well-known masterpieces from the past or those composed by the calligrapher, some of whom were famous as poets. There are many wall boards with moving translations such as Huang Daozhou’s (1585-1646) poem dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng,  which captures a timeless sense of longing—

It’s not that I am not satisfied pounding other people’s grain; I just can’t stop pitying the unraveled weft.  My far-reaching aspirations sink with the white clouds; my person, at leisure, draws close to birds that soar.  I’ve stolen my bit of shade, and feel my life secure; Just based on this, I smell a solitary fragrance.  Who really remembers the time of metal-shift. Message all empty—I pray to old Heaven above.  (Huang Daozhou, 明朝 黃道周 行草詩軸 絹本, Poems dedicated to Wen Zhenmeng in semicursive/cursive script, hanging scroll; ink on silk)

While a large portion of the exhibition is devoted to exploring the complex set of conventions and rules of calligraphy, it also attempts to show linkages with contemporary art, something that intrigued Abstract Expressionists, who essentially created adaptations of the calligraphic gesture.  A number of modern works borrowed from SFMOMA by artists Mark Tobay, Franz Kline and Brice Marden are displayed.  And while this is a small section, it successfully links calligraphy as a highly expressive form of writing form with abstraction as the expression of the self through brush and ink.

Finally, the show closes with a bow to the contemporary—acclaimed Chinese artist and 1999 MacArthur Fellow, Xu Bing’s “The Character of Characters,” a 20 minute animated response to calligraphy’s long-standing traditions.  The film runs continuously in wide-screen, black and white format on three horizontal monitors in the museum’s expansive North Court.  Xu Bing’s  creative process itself speaks to the discipline so essential in calligraphy.  Xu Bing, worked daily for well over a month with13 dedicated assistants—racking up over 5,000 man hours—and roughly 50 drafts and more than 1,000 hand drawn sketches before he was satisfied with the result.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jay Xu, AAM’s director, during the annual press luncheon following Out of Character’s opening.  He related that, as a child, he too was made to sit and practice calligraphy and had little interest pursuing it.  As an adult though, particularly when he is feeling tense, immersing himself in calligraphy is a “stress-buster” and he now finds it “quite enjoyable.” “Calligraphy has been remote and mysterious to many people,” said Hu.  “This is an art, a practice, that encompasses all of Chinese culture and it’s time to decode it.”

Docent tours for Out of Character:  45 minute walk-through, 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, free with museum admission.  Meet at information desk, ground floor.

This Sunday: The Asian offers free yoga!  How do we use works of art to connect with ourselves and others?  Explore this idea as you move with yogi Lorna Reed as she leads a group session in meditation and a Hatha flow practice, using artworks in the museum collection to understand the historical and cultural significance of yoga throughout Asia.  Each session will delve into healthy practices that balance energy, align your body, and help you relax.  Each class ends with a standing meditation in the galleries.  (Part of the Target First Free Sunday Program, Sunday, January 6, 2013, 2-3 p.m., check at information desk for location)

Details: Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy closes Sunday January 13, 2013.  The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco.  Hours:  Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission: $8-$12, free first Sunday of each month.  Parking:  The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces.  From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister. Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info:  begin_of_the_skype_highlighting

January 4, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment